The following two excerpts are from a series of stories I call People I Know and are based on real people and events. Frank and Gwen together with Rose, Carmel, Dave, Brigid, Lachlan, Steve and others form an interesting tapestry as they cope with situations in various time periods and places.
Frank’s hands pressed down on the walking frame, the old knuckles bulbous and white with strain. ‘Come on, you bastard,’ he said to his leg, ‘get moving.’ The pain shot up his thigh, burning and twisting as it went, like a knife in a carcass, like a needle in the eye. He groaned and fell back upon the bed. How many is that? Five attempts? Is that enough? Just lie here now and wait for Helen to come out of the shower. Once more try, you old goat. Feet in position, hands ready, push down, up, up, legs take the weight, pain searing through the muscle, face contorted, eyes clamped shut, up, up, standing, standing at last, the walking frame rigid and strong, taking his weight securely. Steady, steady. ‘Now, into first gear’ he said as he clicked the brake off and shuffled slowly to the bedroom door.
Frank had done ten laps of the hallway before Helen emerged from the ensuite. Her hair still wet, her face clear and smooth, her voice calling ‘You right, Frank?’ as he trundled up and down, up and down, ‘Like a tiger in a cage’ he said. ‘You’d better watch out girlie, I’m firing today.’ Another ten laps and his muscles had loosened up enough to be painless, allowing him to move more freely. This was the high point in his daily routine, knowing that his effort had paid off. ‘One day I won’t be able to stand up no matter how hard I try’, his fear said, ‘and then I’ll be knackered, dependent on Helen for everything, sitting on me bum in the corner, useless, might as well be dead. Anything’s better than that.’
The exercise bike crouched in the carport as Frank clattered down the ramp from the back door and along the path. Same old routine, slowly at first and then gaining strength and speed, his breath keeping time with his legs, his grip on the handle bars firm. He was a little earlier than usual today and was startled by his neighbour’s greeting from over the fence.
‘I had a call from Ron Barassi this morning, wants me in the team, so I’m in training’ he laughed.
‘Good job, Frank, you put me to shame’, she said as she got into her car to go to work.
‘Bloody legs’ he cursed under his breath, ‘get moving’.
These legs have been part of me for a long time he reflected. They were with me in high school, good legs they were then; kept me going on the tennis court. Champion legs. They impressed Prudence Baker as I recall. Prudence Baker with the buckteeth. Teeth so buck she could eat a banana through a tennis racquet. I haven’t thought of her in decades. I wonder if she ever got braces.
©Copyright Moira McAlister July 2020
The darkness of the rough track was a relief after the madness of the highway as Gwen steered the Kingswood towards the old house. It loomed against the dying sky, a solid, two-storey block, surrounded by trees, alone, self-sufficient, strong. Her back was aching and she was conscious of a headache after the ten-hour shift in the geriatric ward of Goulburn hospital.
The house, three kilometres south of Goulburn overlooking the Hume Highway was a Georgian style inn, constructed in 1837 and made to last. It looked quaint, idyllic to passers-by, but it was uncomfortable and far too large for a single, ageing woman. Most of the rooms were locked and gathering dust. The roof was leaking again and the noise from the highway was nerve shattering. She had been tempted to move into a modern, eighties style, pink and grey apartment in Goulburn, but never really got around to it. Her brother Jim and his family lived in Queanbeyan and came to visit regularly. They had sold the property off over the years, but neither of them could bear to part with their childhood home.
She opened the back door into the darkness of the kitchen. The voice came from behind her at the same time that the metal dug hard into the centre of her back.
‘Don’t move. It’s loaded.’
‘What do you want?’
‘Shut up. Move away from the door.’
His voice was young, but harsh, controlled. He slammed the door shut. In the darkness she could smell the dirty frypan, bacon and eggs she guessed. He put the light on and she flinched as the brightness blinded her.
‘Get over to the table.’ He prodded her in the back. ‘Slowly. Sit down. I thought you were a man by the size of you.’
Gwen recognised the rifle. It was hers. It had been her fathers. Her first panicked thought was that she had never seen it from this angle. It looked enormous and very dangerous and she wanted to push it away. She was a big woman, nearly six foot tall and she was not used to being lower than others but he was standing over her as she sat.
She raised her head to look at the speaker’s face. He was young, maybe twenty-five. Hair cropped short, stubble on his face. He was wearing Jim’s farm clothes, the checked shirt and the old brown jumper that Gwen had knitted twenty years ago, crew neck and cable knit down the front. The pants and boots were Jim’s too. He’s escaped from Goulburn Gaol, said her brain at the same time as she recalled her colleague’s face this morning, saying: Two escapees are on the loose. It happened occasionally. Nobody worried too much as they were always keen to leave the area as soon as possible. The old stories flashed in her mind of bushrangers holding up the inn here occasionally, but she pushed them aside, no time to think about that now.
‘Are there two of you?’
‘Two escaped. Where’s the other one?’
‘Yeah.’ He smiled. ‘He’s here. He’s out the back.’
Silence. Gwen looked around the kitchen and realised he’d been here a while. The frying pan was on the bench with the bread, eggs, some tomatoes, but only one dirty plate.
‘What do you want?’
‘Want? I want your car. I’ve got to get to Melbourne. Money. Have you got any cash?’
‘Not much. About $30, here in my…’
‘Can you put the gun down?’
‘Put the gun down. I’m not going to scream or do anything. There are no neighbours anyway. I’m fifty-two, hardly a match for you and your mate outside.’
He lowered it towards the floor and sat opposite her at the table, but kept his hand on the butt, his fingers twitched near the trigger.
‘Get the money out. Slowly.’
Gwen slowly lifted her handbag to the table and took out her money purse. She tipped out $35 and some coins, about 85c. He swept it away into his pocket.
‘I got the $120 in your underwear drawer,’ he said, confidentially.
OK Gwen, she thought, stay calm, this could be bad. Don’t let him rattle you.
‘Now we go to Melbourne.’
‘We? No. Why don’t you just take the car?’
‘No. You’re coming with me. Insurance.’
‘Just leave me here. I won’t tell anyone.’
‘No way. Anyway, I need you to drive. And they won’t be looking for a nice young fella travelling with his mother will they?’
‘Can we have a cup of tea? I’ve got a headache and I’ve been working all day. I don’t know if I can drive very far. I need some food.’
‘OK’ he said, picking up the rifle and pointing it towards her. ‘No funny business.’
Gwen moved around the old kitchen slowly as if she was in a dream. Her brain could not go beyond making the tea, the mechanical movements making small noises in the silence of the kitchen, the roar of the highway dulled by comparison.
They drank their tea in silence. Is this bizarre? She thought. Drinking tea with him? She ate the toast and thought that except for the gun, they could be any two people, mother and son, husband and wife, brother and sister sitting together in the kitchen. He cut the toast into small squares and loaded the jam on each square separately before he ate it.
‘I made it. From the apricot tree outside.’
‘What about your mate outside?’
‘Don’t be smart. You know he’s not there. He took off to Sydney as soon as we got out. Best not to be together. You’re a better cover. A nice old lady. Let’s go.’
He smiled when he saw the car. ‘A good old Holden Kingswood. Nice sized boot. Any trouble from you and I’ll put you in there.’
She froze. Her greatest fear was small places. With such a big body, she had always been afraid of being cramped, not being able to breathe or move. He saw her fear and she knew he would use it against her if he had to.
If you subscribe to my blog by email on the sidebar I will send you the complete story Gwen as PDF document for free, as a thank you. It’s a great story and even better that it is based on fact, “Gwen” being a member of my husband’s extended family.
©Copyright Moira McAlister July 2020